Stories of abuse and betrayal tremble beneath the veneer of spiritual groups. Silently. For decades.
The veneer functions like money does in the Epstein world to write the laws, conceal the truth, and dispose of the evidence. Spiritual groups don’t have Epstein-level money, but they have other shiny objects to distract and confuse. They have stories of extraordinary men, spiritual transformations, and a coming enlightened age.
One type of question I often field is “what makes the Jois story a yoga story?” or: “What makes the Rigpa story a story about Buddhism?” I counter the deflection of this question by saying “It’s true: these are rape culture and high-demand group stories.”
Then I add: “But it’s important that we see how they play out in environments in which they are explicitly not meant to happen: places where vulnerable people come to be protected from abuse.”
But there’s another reason I believe stories of spiritual abuse are important to investigate and understand. In some cases, the group has an outsize impact upon the broader culture, usually through having found a way to conceal its origins, manage its image, and secularize and popularize its techniques.
I’m not talking about groups like Scientology, which unduly influence celebrities who carry a lot of social power, but which also have a hard time commodifying their core content. (One test here is that Dianetics has always been published in-house, while much of the “advanced” literature is hidden altogether.) With Shambhala, for example, the core content is sanitized, legitimized, and monetized through institutions like Naropa and a number of spiritual/self-help books that became touchstones in the 1990s neoliberalism that believed it was progressive.
That core content is a group effort. More importantly: the group effort conceals itself through the presentation of individual genius. Nowhere is this more efficient than in the spiritual book industry.
Spiritual books are marketed on the basis of the awakened personality and the intimacy of the author’s written “voice”. The public ends up thinking they’re encountering the realized presence of Pema Chödrön on the page, for example. That page, and the buzz around it, gets her onto Oprah.
But Chödrön’s ascent to Oprah isn’t driven by her personal wisdom or virtue. She gets that gig because she has risen to the top of a high-demand group as a spokesperson.
(With great love and care for independent booksellers everywhere.)
As part of my tour to promote Practice and All is Coming, I was invited by a well-beloved bookstore in a major North American city to give a presentation and sign copies as part of their author’s series.
This gorgeous bookstore is proudly independent, and has supported spiritual seekers, social progressives, and environmental activists for decades. The staff were kind and professional and encouraging.
I arrived early for the AV check and looked around. Behind the little stage area where I was supposed to stand stood the entire yoga section.
And there they all were.
It was strange and tense and activating to see piles of yoga books written by or associated with abusive leaders and institutional betrayal. I was there to present an argument against the messages and the media of exactly these books.
At the risk of wearing out my welcome, I made use of the paradox in my presentation. When I offered the following slide of The List of yoga organizations that have unresolved abuse histories, I was able to tie almost every one with a book from the shelf. I was worried about making the staffers uncomfortable, but they were really grateful and supportive. Who wants to sell compromised goods, after all? Continue reading “How Good Book Stores Become Unwitting Retailers for Yoga and Buddhism Cults”
The moderators at r/ShambhalaBuddhism kindly invited me to do an AMA on March 20, 2019. Here’s my opening comment, followed by the questions and answers that I worked on for about a week prior to the event. I’ve edited slightly and left out secondary exchanges. The whole thread can be found here.
Two things off the top:
Firstly: I’ve worked on these answers throughout the week, as they’ve come in. The reports from An Olive Branch were released yesterday. I’ve scanned them but not in enough detail to better inform my answers where appropriate. If it’s useful, I may return to these answers later to add citations from the reports. On first glance, it’s clear that the reports offer compelling evidence for what many Shambhala survivors have been saying for about a year now: that the organization’s dubious claims to spiritual lineage are eclipsed by the shadow of intergenerational trauma and abuse. Shambhala members are going to have to start asking whether the former was a fiction that functioned to cover over the latter. Continue reading “reddit AMA: 21 Questions on Shambhala”
Back in August, I analyzed a dharma talk given by Judith Simmer-Brown in Boulder. The talk was given on the heels of a convulsive July for Shambhala International. Mipham Mukpo (the “Sakyong”) had just announced a then-temporary (now perhaps permanent) resignation from his administrative duties amidst further allegations of sexual assault and an announcement from the Interim Board of Directors that he would be the subject of a third-party investigation. Buddhist Project Sunshine had already produced numerous and credible allegations against Mukpo in its Phase 2 & 3 Reports.
Simmer-Brown’s talk sought to provide an insider’s reassurance of the basic goodness of the organization amidst escalating criticism and international news coverage. The core message, repeated from many different angles, was that in the eye of the storm, Shambhala members should keep practicing the content that Chogyam Trungpa had given the organization, and that she as a group leader and Mipham Mukpo had spent many years nurturing (and commodifying). As per custom, she tied her comments to the ancientness of a Buddhist teaching called “The Four Reliances”, which encourages student to look beyond the everyday world for their hope and salvation. Deploying this text at this time implied that digging into the details of systemic abuse constitutes an abandonment of spirituality. Simmer-Brown also spoke of the dangers of the kind of doubt that could lead a practitioner to abandon their path.
Simmer-Brown’s talk bolstered the premise that the teaching content of an organization rife with institutional abuse is an appropriate response to that abuse. This is despite the fact that spiritual teaching content is consistently used to suppress abuse testimonies in yoga and Buddhist groups. Continue reading “Preserving Magic vs. Supporting Victims: A Judith Simmer-Brown Article, Annotated”
On October 17th, eight Shambhala students chosen by the Transition Task Force to form an Interim Board of Directors were sworn into service for a twelve month period.
The move comes as the global neo-Buddhist organization navigates allegations of sexual assault committed by its spiritual leader, Ösel Mukpo, also known as Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche.
The allegations against Mukpo were first publicized by Buddhist Project Sunshine in February. BPS is headed up by Andrea Winn, a life-long Shambhala member, along with independent investigator Carol Merchasin. The team’s three reports also contain allegations of intergenerational and institutional abuse within the organization, which was founded by Mukpo’s father, Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, in 1971.
The revelations have shaken Shambhala International to the core, triggering the resignation of its Board and forcing Mukpo to step down from his administrative role. Recent financial reports show that the organization, which posted 18M in North American revenue in 2017, is now in financial crisis. Some local centres, including the one in New York City, will soon be closing.
Winn’s team, along with the women who provided their testimony, also prompted Shambhala to commission its own independent investigation, led by the Halifax firm Wickwire Holm. Some community members have doubted the impartiality of the investigation and its gag order on complainants.
According to its new website, the Interim Board is charged with several tasks, including keeping the crippled organization solvent, coordinating international affairs, and communicating the results of Shambhala’s collaboration with An Olive Branch, an American Zen-based group that consults on ethics policies for Buddhist groups.
The website also states that the Interim Board will “Release to the community as much of the Wickwire Holm report as is legally and ethically possible while respecting confidentiality.”
The report is due out in early January. In early December, the Interim Board will convene in Halifax, where they plan to meet with Mukpo.
Additionally, the Interim Board is to keep Mukpo “apprised” of their work, “even though he is not responding to any administrative aspects of Shambhala or the Interim Board.”
The installation of the Interim Board required that members swear this oath:
While highly unusual for any not-for-profit, this oath is consistent with Shambhala’s culture and mythology, which posits that members are living in, aspiring to live in, or trying to manifest an enlightened world, parallel to this one, governed by supernatural beings.
The “Rigden” to which Interim Board members are bowing is an archetypal ruler of that world, linked to the divine realms described in medieval Tibetan tantric literature. (The lede image for this article is of an incomplete painting of the “Primordial Ridgen”. The image is featured on many Shambhala Centre altars around the world.)
“Dorje Dradül” is an epithet for Chögyam Trungpa, who died of alcoholism in 1987, and was believed to be in telepathic communication with the rigdens.
“Kongma Sakyong, Jampal Trinley Dradül, and the Sakyong Wangmo, Dechen Chöying Sangmo” are epithets for Ösel Mukpo, Trungpa’s son and business heir, and his wife, Semo Tseyang Palmo. The term “dralas” refers to the embodied nature spirits that were a feature of Tibetan indigenous religion, prior to the arrival of Indian Buddhism in the 8th century.
The Interim Board was appointed by the Transition Task Force, led by senior Trungpa devotees, including Pema Chödrön. It is comprised of long-term Shambhala students and leaders, including the Chair of the Shastri (teachers) Council, a former President of Naropa University (founded by Trungpa in 1976), and a feminist anthropologist and psychotherapist who will teach at Naropa beginning in 2019.
Three of the Interim Board members are also practitioners of the “Scorpion Seal”, an initiated ritual meditation said to be divinely received by Chögyam Trungpa, and later revealed by his son. Part of the ritual, which is kept secret, involves visualizing the Mukpos as enlightened beings, as seen in this more introductory practice.
On their website, the Interim Board asserts that “We are especially sensitive to resisting a top-down approach that seeks to polish or smooth over harm that has already occurred.”
However, they did not respond to a request for comment on how they planned to impartially oversee the investigation of Mukpo, given their religious commitments to him as leader.
On Saturday, August 4th, senior Shambhala International teacher Judith Simmer-Brown gave a talk in Boulder as part of a series called “Conversations That Matter”. The title was “Caring for Community,” and it was structured around a set of slogans called “The Four Reliances”, which are meant to help Buddhist practitioners separate out mundane and spiritual concerns.
In this context, the slogans were offered to help Shambhala practitioners in particular renew their commitment to the group’s ideas and practices, in the midst of continuing revelations of abuse within the group itself. They advise the practitioner to see immediate and obvious circumstances — and their interpretation of those circumstances — as ephemeral (or at best instrumental to a higher purpose) and to develop a depersonalized, non-judgmental, and non-verbal devotion to the group’s content.
The “Four Reliances”, featured in several Buddhist texts dating back to the first century CE, are:
- Do not rely on the personality or individuality of the teacher. Rely on the Dharma teachings themselves.
- Do not rely on the literal words. Rely on the meaning of the teachings.
- Do not rely on merely provisional teachings. Rely on the definitive or ultimate teachings.
- Do not rely on conceptual mind. Rely on the nondual wisdom of experience.
The presentation series is hosted by the group’s flagship Center, founded in 1970 by Chögyam Trungpa. Simmer-Brown’s talk was livestreamed for members of the public who registered via the Zoom platform. I registered under my own name, and recorded the event. No copyright notice or privacy request was posted.
Appropriating a popular concept from trauma-recovery discourse, Simmer-Brown explained that her talk would offer “foundational things that we need to know in order to be resilient practitioners.” In the Q&A that followed, she suggested that such resilience could be nurtured by the activities of the very group that had caused the trauma. “Our confusion and pain,” she told one questioner,” might drive us more deeply into practice.”
The appeal from group leaders to double down on group practice in the face of group abuse is a common theme in the crisis responses of yoga and dharma organizations. When the news of Pattabhi Jois’s decades of sexual assaults on his women students began to go mainstream, a common insider response was to repeat Jois’s most famous aphorism: “Practice, and all is coming.”
As the Shambhala foundations shake, many devotees are likewise relying on beloved sayings of Trungpa, such as: “The essence of warriorship, or the essence of human bravery, is refusing to give up on anyone or anything.” (the recent remarks of Susan Piver, as well as Pema Chödron’s 1993 and 2011 responses to Trungpa’s own abuses. Continue reading “Judith Simmer-Brown to Distraught Shambhala Members: “Practice More.” (Notes and Transcript)”A similar theme grounds
This is a followup on notes I published about the structure, language, and impact of disorganized attachment evident in the Shambhala organization. It also provides an update on the question of Chödrön’s approach to Shambhala history, and whether it provides clarity or obfuscation in relation to the present revelations of institutional abuse.
On July 13th, Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse (Khyentse Norbu) cited Chödrön’s 1993 interview with Tricycle as a laudable example of how a Vajrayana student is to view and contemplate their teacher. However, Norbu incorrectly dated Chödrön’s statement to 2015. I argued that this unfortunately could create the unfair impression that Chödrön’s 25 year-old views are current, and perhaps issued to pre-empt current criticism of Shambhala.
But in the 2011 hagiographical film “Crazy Wisdom: The Life and Times of Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche” (New York: Kino Lorber), director and Trungpa student Johanna Demetrakas records Chödrön delivering an aphoristic encapsulation of her 1993 statement.
At time cue 51:00, Chödrön says:
People say to me, how could you follow a teacher like that? Or how could an enlightened person do that? I do not know. I can’t buy a party line where they say it was sacred activity or something like this. Come up with ground to make it okay. I also can’t come up with ground or a fixed idea to make it not okay. You know, I’m left, really left in that I don’t know. I don’t know. But I can’t answer the relative questions because he defied being able to answer them.
Just over a year ago, eight long-term students of Sogyal Lakar (known as Sogyal Rinpoche) sent him a letter that is still shaking the foundations of his “Rigpa International” corporation. The letter from “The Eight” accused him of decades of physical, emotional, psychological and sexual abuse of students, a “lavish, gluttonous, and sybaritic lifestyle”, and degrading the image and meaning of global Buddhism. The accusations have not been denied. Lakar has retreated from public life, and RI says that it’s investigating. Whether this will result in transparency and restorative justice remains to be seen.
Khyentse Norbu (Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse) comes from a decorated family of Tibetan Buddhist teachers, and is said to be a “Rinpoche” — a reincarnated “precious one”, born to carry perfect and rare teachings forward from a primordial source. Norbu is known for engaging his cosmopolitan global audience with pugnacious erudition, pot-stirring books, and a flair for documentary filmmaking, in which he was reportedly tutored by Bernardo Bertolucci, who he met on the set of “Little Buddha”.
Norbu shares a global stage with Lakar as a popular teacher of Tibetan Tantric Buddhism (Vajrayana). Accordingly, his students asked him to comment on the accusations against Lakar. A month after the letter from “The Eight”, he obliged by posting a ten thousand-word essay that was shared over a thousand times on Facebook, and lauded by his students around the world as a nuanced defence of Vajrayana’s abiding magic and the unorthodox but salvific bonds it promotes between teachers and students.
“Defence” is perhaps not the right word, however. The essay spends none of its time on the accusations. Rather, it sermonizes on the glory of the Vajrayana process, and laments the poor education of those who claim to be hurt by it. The Eight, Norbu argues, must have known what they were in for as Vajrayana students. They should have had “superior faculties” that would have allowed them to transform the perception of Lakar’s abuse into a belief in his spiritual care. These faculties should have been further cemented by the students’ “samaya”, or psychospiritual commitment to Lakar. The essay reminds readers that for Lakar’s students to break samaya by not framing all of his actions as beneficial condemns them to aeons of literal hell. Continue reading “Tantric Trolling, Tantric Fixing: Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse’s Posts on Clerical Sexual Abuse”
A source forwarded the following email, sent by a Shambhala leader to volunteers and residents at Vermont’s Karmê Chöling, the Buddhist retreat centre founded by the organization’s “root teacher”, Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, in 1970.
The email follows up on a group meeting of volunteers and residents to discuss whether the portrait of Ösel Mukpo, now accused of forced confinement and sexual assault, should be covered or taken down from the altar in the staff shrine room. The letter indicates the same questions are being asked about the photographs of Trungpa.
Core teaching content is delivered in Shambhala shrine rooms, as well as group liturgies, ceremonies, and empowerments. These events often involve generating deep feelings of love and devotion towards group leaders, and the teaching content. At this moment, shrine rooms throughout the organization are surely fraught spaces for many members, who may suddenly feel they are sites of personal and institutional betrayal.
What is at stake in this discussion is whether those who have been sexually assaulted (statistically one in four women who enter that room), along with those who bear other traumas, will be asked to meditate in a space presided over by the image of a credibly accused assaulter. Because the staff shrine room altar is the focus, this is also a workplace issue.
I’m posting it below with a few brief notes in red because I think it might be useful for members to track in real time how cognitive dissonance emerges and is managed by power structures at crisis moments in yoga and Buddhist communities. I believe if members can be supported in seeing this clearly, recovery time will be hastened. Continue reading “Shrine of Devotion, Betrayal, or Indoctrination? An Internal Shambhala Email, Annotated”
It identifies Mukpo as both the reincarnation of a Tibetan saint and a meditational deity. It says that he is a king, a ruler of the “three worlds” (of desire, form, and formlessness), and the “manifestation of buddha activity.” The chanter prays for Mukpa’s influence to spread through Jambudvipa, which basically means “earth”, but from the perspective of deities who can perceive multiple worlds.
According to members I’ve spoken with, this chant is deployed to two contexts. At some Shambhala centres, entry-level members are introduced to it at weekly gatherings. When they ask about the chant’s meanings or express discomfort at praying to human being as if he were a deity, they are typically told that they can understand it “symbolically” for now, and that deeper meanings will be unfolded at higher levels of commitment.
The second usage of the change comes at those higher levels, where, along with explication, the chant itself becomes an expression of “samaya”.
“Samaya” is a “contract” to a teacher made in Tantric streams of Indian wisdom culture. Breaking it, which can happen through as little as thinking badly about that teacher, is said to result in endless cycles of disgusting and horrific torture in “hell-realms”. Over the years I have received communications from members of neo-Tibetan tantric groups who say that this is a source of literal terror for them.
I don’t think it matters that much that the literal meanings of these threats might be lost on postmodern practitioners. When I had “samaya” with Michael Roach and his teacher, the late Khenpo Rinpoche, I took the gory details as metaphors for inescapable psychological pain.
Many traditionalists would say that a text used for Tantric practitioners is actually forbidden to those who are not initiated. In other words, it would be “illegal” for students who had not attained a certain maturity in relation to the teaching content to be asked to read ritual literature “symbolically”. Amongst all of the ways in which the followers of Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche have, like him, both appealed to “tradition” while holding it in contempt, what would this one be about?
A commenter on my Facebook feed wrote about how he was asked to hold the meaning of the chant symbolically as a new student. He remarks:
“Sadly it turns out that this soft-symbolic, “Don’t worry about it’, ‘You are your own meditation instructor'”, guidance on the chants is actually a bait and switch for those who enter the Vajrayana path, which I fortunately never did.”
The commenter’s observations describe a well-known feature of cult media.
The two performance levels — intro and advanced — allow this same chant to perform the dual functions of propaganda and indoctrination described by Alexandra Stein (via Hannah Arendt) employed by cultic organizations. She explains the difference here. My argument is that the intro-level chant, explained to newcomers as symbolic, works as propaganda. The advanced application, with its more literal implications and commitments, functions to deepen indoctrination.
“Propaganda is not indoctrination, though it may be the first step towards entering a process of indoctrination. Indoctrination is what happens during the subsequent process of brainwashing within an isolated context. Importantly, those to whom propaganda is directed are not yet isolated or are only partially so. They still have some points of reference in the outside world. They may still have friends or family or colleagues with whom they can check out their impressions. The much more intense process of indoctrination to extreme beliefs occurs when the new recruit has been successfully separated from their external contacts. Then they can begin to be broken down, to lose their own sense of reality, their own common sense, and they can eventually be pressured to take on new and often dangerous or damaging ideas and behaviors. This part of the process can sometimes take years. Propaganda can be seen as the softening up process that gets the recruit to the point where indoctrination processes can start to be implemented. Propaganda must be believable enough, must have some kind of hook into the real world so that potential recruits will follow the thread and not simply be repulsed immediately.” (2017, 53-54)
According to this schema, it would be worth investigating the relationship between popular Shambhala-based books and media content and the ritual literature of the inner core. The books on the Shambhala Publications back list, for example, might function as a “transmission belt” (again, after Arendt) towards the inner core and its high demands.
I don’t know how many people have “samaya” with Ösel Mukpo, but there are at least 200 gathering on the 15th at the Shambhala Mountain Centre. (More on this in this earlier post.)
Emails to registrants confirm that Mukpo won’t be there, and suggest that the retreat leaders will be attempting to “separate the teacher from the teachings”. In the case of this upcoming “Garchen”, those teachings are said to have been mystically revealed to Mukpo’s father in the early 1980s, and now Mukpo himself.
But this chant, in which devotion and metaphysics are inextricable, makes it clear just how difficult separating the teacher from the teachings actually is in this and other communities governed by modern appropriations of “samaya”. Devotion is the content. The medium is the message.
Reformers who really want to work towards student empowerment and safety have to not only insist upon the physical and administrative withdrawal of an abusive leader, but re-imagine a curriculum somehow separate from its origin story. The content didn’t come from outer space.
The manual from which this is taken ends with the statement: “This material is available in limited publication, and no general publication is made or intended. No part of this material may be reproduced or published in any form without the written consent of the Nalanda Translation Committee.”
Here it is anyway, because transparency, right? It’s important for everyone in yoga and Buddhist communities, which are so susceptible to mechanisms of undue influence, to see how hidden materials of indoctrination work.
Also, no author gets to establish the “intention” of a text as somehow separate from the way it is read, or its various impacts. That goes for me as well, which is something I contemplate as I continue to cover this subject.